Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Hairspray (Shaftesbury)

Arriving in the West End after several successful years on Broadway (it was the 2003 Tony Award winner, and is still running) and a film version, this musical is itself a based on the cult 1988 John Waters film of the same name. I have to say that I enjoyed the original (non musical) film, but the film musical was a little too bland for my tastes (general early 60’s pop tunes that won’t scare anyone, composed by Marc Shaiman), the music certainly has its catchy moments, but I still needed some convincing. So seeing the stage version at long last was very interesting indeed; I undoubtedly enjoyed the music onstage more than hearing it in the film (as is generally the case with live music versus recorded in my experience), and it helps that the cast are bright, likeable and tuneful in person.

Hairspray is about an overweight teenage girl in 1962 Baltimore, and naturally she finds true calling (dancing), gets exactly what she wants (including national TV fame), and along the way accepts herself, whilst of course also bringing people together through her innate charm and chutzpah (breaking down segregationist barriers); basically this is a show aimed at every teenage girl who has felt in someway insecure about her looks or social standing (so that would be all of them then, not to mention nearly everyone else in the western world I). It is sort of a Wicked for teenagers who actually like musicals and not just utterly crass overblown spectacle (where the very idea of a fat leading lady would give the producers a heart attack. Actually do producers have hearts?), so at least Hairspray score marks on the ‘slightly less plastic than wicked’ front, but that isn’t really too difficult. This show however will appeal to a wider demographic than just the self empowering teens; it is absolutely right for a safe family audience, perfect for a trip to town to see a show. By all this you will have gathered that I don’t think Hairspray is one of the greats works of the dramatic stage, and it isn’t, but it does its job in entertaining people, providing some not unpleasant music and more than anything providing some wonderful character parts for Mr Michael Ball (as Edna Turnblad) and Mr Mel Smith (as her husband). In fact the whole cast is pretty good throughout. Ball as Edna is something of a shock, he has such a singular look in real life (actually I am referring to the artifice of the stage as ‘real life’, this being my main contact so far with Mr Ball, but I mean when not in drag as ‘real life’), that I actually didn’t realise that he was onstage at all for some minutes (and this is whilst he is singing), and this is with foreknowledge of his on stage transvestism and the character that he was playing, so it is quite a transformation into a large and common sense Baltimore housewife circa 1962. Leanne Jones as Tracy, the teen heroine, is marvellous and a newcomer to the professional stage. She is perfect for the irrepressible character of Tracy, and boy can she dance. The original Broadway director, Jack O’Brien, once again does the honours, and his production is slick but not lavish (sets by David Rockwell). I should credit Mr O’Brien, the cast and writers with some genuinely infectious moments, but not enough to sustain a level of joy that I can easily slip into during a great musical (at Guys and Dolls or Parade for example).

Hairspray is not emotionally insightful, socially important or infectiously joyful (for me anyway), but it is enjoyable, and a perfectly pleasant and undemanding way to spend an evening, the cast certainly make the show much more watchable than it easily could have been.

More to come...

I have to finish writing now in order to sleep, but I'll continue the round up later in the week with the likes of Vincent River, Statement of Regret, 42nd Street, Free Outgoing, The Arsonists, Cloud Nine, The Giant, The Brothers Size, Water and even King Tut at the Dome/The O2 Shopping Mall (aggh!).

Monday, 26 November 2007

Reviews: Sweet William, Arcola; The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond; A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios; Dealer's Choice, Menier

Sweet William, Arcola

After engagements in some of the more genteel regions of these Isles, Michael Pennington brings his one man conversation piece to the somewhat unlikely setting of the Arcola in Dalston (and it will play the Trafalgar Studios in February next year), hitherto known for rather more cutting edge work. This is a very worthwhile and interesting evening of somewhat gentle amusement, entertainment and education, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, sometimes a bit of gentility can be welcomed in a world inner city drama and social realist theatre. Listening to Pennington in generally is probably quite interesting, but here, talking about his abiding and consuming passion for Shakespeare, his words really take off. It is such a pleasure to hear somebody as intelligent and experienced as Pennington talking with such erudition and poise about a genuine, infectious passion, one in which so many of us share (though I have only seen 35 of Shakespeare’s plays, unlike Pennington who has probably acted in more Shakespeare parts than I’ve had hot dinners). Pennington (who also directs himself) gives us no flights of rhetorical fancy, overblown acting or ham sandwiches (as one person shows can often do), he gives us often overlooked snippets carefully acted out and naturally flowing from his thoughtful personal monologue. A charming evening, with a true gent of the British stage.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond (tour and then West End).

What has happened to Peter Gill Of late? His production of Gaslight at the Old Vic was abysmal, thought the terrible material doesn’t help, and this rather perfunctory production of The Importance of Being Earnest is not exactly meticulous (I word that I would previously associated with Gill; Look Back in Anger, The Voysey Inheritance, Epitaph for George Dillon, Days of Wine and Roses, Scenes from the Big Picture and The York Realist, all providing me with striking memories of excellent productions, even if the play was lacking as with George Dillon). It alls seems like the cast are just going through the motions (‘oh, a Saturday matinee at Richmond, we don’t have to bother much!’), and I hardly managed to raise a laugh in any of the three acts. Penelope Keith is Lady Bracknell, and she is on autopilot, just like in Blithe Spirit a few years back, I’m sure the audience had all come to see her, but I’d like to see a just a shade of the character in the play, not just the persona the actress constantly portrays (it’s almost commedia dell'arte), why cast Ms Keith in these circumstances I hear you ask? Well, precisely.

The rest of the cast are not up to much either, at least we know what to expect from Ms Keith, and indeed get it in spades, the central male characters (Jack and Algernon, played by Harry Hadden-Patton and William Ellis respectively) were so lifeless I wanted to use the emergency defibrillator in order revive them and bring the into Wilde’s world of brittle comedy (they were certainly less formidable than the wonderful elderly Richmond matrons). Daisy Haggard as Gwendolen was totally miscast, she just has too much of the 21st century about her, and I’ll leave it at that. I sincerely hope that I saw the production on a very off day, otherwise a substantial amount of theatregoers will be paying a substantial amount more (than the relatively tame Richmond prices) to see a flat production which barley merits a tour, let alone a West End transfer and price hike (the sets were also pretty rickety, but maybe they’ll scale up for the West End. Most likely not).

A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios

The television comedian Patrick Kielty makes his stage debut in a revival of Mare Jones’s one map play, set around the acrimonious 1993 Eire v Northern Ireland football match, and the following year’s world cup, which the Republic qualified for and the North didn’t. It is really a paean to Irish brotherhood, which also highlights the disgusting nature of bigotry, racism and xenophobia in sport (and thus wider society) which can all so casually be dismissed as heat of the moment or unimportant the next day, but the play shows that deep seated prejudices are difficult to overcome without actually understanding the other groups point of view (simply suppressing a hatred, coming to a working agreement with those you dislike or mistrust, dose not kill the hatred). I’m no great fan of Jones, but watching this play for the first time (directed by Ian McElhinney), I was impressed at how natural and easy the play seemed (as compared to laboured, or at least conscious, oirish-ness in other works). Kielty is very good as the genial everyman who comes to a better understanding of himself through opposition to what he experiences on the sectarian football terraces and ends up supporting the Republic in the ’94 world cup. Naturally this all come easily, and the open Southern Irish are not at all prejudiced against this nominally Protestant dole clerk from Belfast, but that is a small gripe (and genuinely the Republic is a very friendly place form my experience and the Irish are not bigoted against their Northern brethren as far as I can casually observe). Unfortunately the play lags a little bit for me towards the end (you could happily cut the interval and 10 minutes off the text), but this is despite Kielty’s charming performance. It is strange to think of a grown man in this country never visiting a large section of a city he has lived in for all of his life, simply because of his enforced religious affiliation. Thought this is not exactly a revelatory experience, it is a funny night at the theatre with amiable company.

Dealer’s Choice, Menier (transferring to Trafalgar Studios)

Patrick Marber’s 1995 play receives a meticulous production at the increasingly influential Menier Chocolate Factory, a venue that has had a superb track record of success in only a few short years of operation, and which now has a reach far beyond the London fringe, all the way to Broadway (their stunning Olivier Award winning production of Sunday in the Park With George, directed by Sam Buntrock, is opening at Studio 54 soon, with the original London leads too; get your tickets now).

Sam West (maybe I’ll call him the new Peter Gill?) really has directed this all male piece marvellously, he and his brilliant cast don’t put a foot wrong. In fact the only bum notes comes from the author, and a slightly unfortunate updating of the script, although I should stress that this is a minor quibble and doesn’t affect the overall quality of the production much, but it sure does niggle me (why do we need a Germany ’06 shirt, trips to the Tate Modern and the like? Also restaurants in public toilets in East London, a comedy plot throughout the play, are actually a reality, and any real estate sold for peanuts in the East End would be a shrewd and admired investment. See, the updating really has opened up a can of worms which 1995 doesn’t). The play, set around a late night poker game amongst restaurant staff, is actually all about the interactions of men, and particularly the central father son relationship. Marber has a great ear for detail, and his words could be heard coming from the mouths of men across the country, but his play, in focusing incident and dialogue, as drama generally does, gives us a wonderfully character study of these men. The action of the poker game is genuinely involving, even for absolute novices like me, and the tension really becomes intense towards the end of the game (though mainly due to the story and not the cards or the money it has to be said), and the threat of violence at one point rears its head, it is electrifying. The breaking of trust between father and son (perhaps not for the first time), the ignorance of an innocent, the dreams that will never come to fruition, all these interesting subjects are raised in Dealer’s Choice, but again with the utmost fluidity and naturalness. You can enjoy Dealer’s Choice as a comedy, as a great story, or a superb example of ensemble acting. Certainly a highlight for the West End this Christmas.

Gilgamesh; We Are Shadows; The Investigation; Au Reviour Parapluie; The Blacks; Present Laughter; Rent ; Swimming with Sharks; Glengarry Glen Ross

Round Up

Due to my busy life (i.e. constant theatre going, film watching, exhibition attending and exhausted reading at inappropriate night time hours), and circumstances relating to my pecuniary needs combined with software integration problems (i.e. having to earn some money and buy a new computer, a ‘refurbished’ laptop which I’m not very happy with, for many laptop related reasons), I’ve not been writing anything, let alone the bare highlights of the ups and downs of my theatregoing of recent months. I shall rectify this with some short-ish comments on some of the shows I have seen recently (or not so recently in some cases).

Gilgamesh (The Pit), America Debate, Sicko.

What seems like many moons ago I saw Gligamesh at the Pit, a devised piece as part of the Barbican’s Australian season (Ozmosis 07). The aims of the season (presumably to bring a flavour of the strangely unfamiliar Australian theatre scene to London) is laudable, but overall (taking the season as a whole, plus a few Aussie pieces at the Ed Fest) I don’t see the Australians doing things very much differently than we Europeans (I love the incongruity in saying that, because the London/English/British Theatre culture can still feel totally detached, even isolated, from ‘European’ practitioners and styles, which is a shame; let’s have a bit more meaningful collaboration, not just the occasional visit or curated season, much like this Aussie one at the Barbican). Anyway, I won’t go over the pros and cons show (the ancient Mesopotamian epic legend played out in a large sandpit by a cast of three, with some impressive physical business and imaginative visual devices), I do however want to ask a question to anyone who saw the show or indeed the theatre makers themselves (Uncle Semolina & Friends); was Gilgamesh Saddam or Bush? The show was conceived at the same time as ‘America was leading the Invasion of Iraq’ (according to the programme), and obviously the legend is Iraqi, but I got the distinct impression that the murderous tyrant was Mr Bush not Dictator Saddam (the Star Spangled Banner features briefly in the show too). Now call me old fashioned, or indeed politically wrong, but I think Saddam was doing a little bit of oppression and murdering of the Iraqi people before the junior Bush turned up, and is action (Bush’s) in war really directly comparable with a purposeful regime of tyranny, does George Bush actually want to oppress and kill people (and are the Americans doing the killing in Iraq now, no)? Obviously (of course I’m of the left, I like the theatre!) GWB is a terrible man, the worst US President ever, and absolutely wrongheaded on nearly every aspect of foreign (and US domestic) policy (and the Iraq disaster has been mishandled at nearly every turn, from forward planning, disbanding the army, police and civil service, to prisoner abuses etc), but I can’t accept him being fingered as a hysterical butcher in Iraq with the Saddam years forgotten (and it is also worth remembering British and US complicity in his reign whilst he was a bulwark against the Soviets). I think the attitude displayed towards America is all too often glib and unthinking (i.e. universally, black and white, negative), the US is a great country, it has also got some of the poorest and most wretched people inside it

That brings me to Sicko, Michael Moore’s latest film. I agree with Moore about Gun ownership and Guantanamo, but not about his conspiracy theories elsewhere, I also think he can be, to put it mildly, unsophisticated and over the top (as a presentational device, I have no doubt that he is in no way unsophisticated personally, which is demonstrated in his grasp of propaganda and the importance of the overall message and not subtlety in mass communication). So I came to Sicko with caution, but ended up agreeing with him (almost) wholeheartedly, which is his talent. I didn’t end up agreeing with him in reality, I already held firm views on ‘socialised’ healthcare, he just pushed all my buttons and shot some compelling film on the subject. He also took a step back and didn’t make the film all about him (insofar as this is ever possible with him), his incredulous gasps and naïve repeated question to NHS, French or Cuban doctors, did end up a little irritating, and his Guantanamo stunt was not really very effective, but the tales of poor and not so poor people being denied adequate healthcare in the US is shocking and made me very angry. The NHS isn’t perfect, but it is worth defending (in both principal and from verbal, intellectual and political/financial attack).

We Are Shadows, Albany (Deptford)

This was a brilliant, exciting and highly enjoyable new play for young people (and I was any people) by Fin Kennedy, that I was lucky enough to catch in Deptford as part of a short tour by the Half Moon theatre company. I have already gone on far too long about one play and one film (above), so I’ll keep my comments brief. Firstly, the three young actors who related various (mostly) monologues about the interlinked lives of young people in East London (based on Mr Kennedy’s in-depth research in the community), are so terrific, they embody the verve and absolute commitment that enable us to briefly visit the lives of the characters the are portraying. The simple production (directed by Angela Michaels) isn’t negative or downbeat as some ‘inner city’ plays can be, but nor is it rose tinted, the play is a real view of varied and sometimes difficult young lives, which can be funny and touching, it reminded me of David Grieg’s Yellow Moon which entranced me at the Edinburgh Festival this year (which I mean as a compliment), both Grieg and Kennedy seem to have the ring or reality in their dialogue and the simple but often elusive ability to hook us with an exciting and engrossing story.

The Investigation, Young Vic

The Investigation at the Young Vic was a remarkable and moving theatrical experience. A group of Rwandan actors performing a play edited from the testimonies of holocaust survivors (and the accused) at a post WWII trial. Hearing these actors, who had lied through their own countries bloodbath was always going to be an emotive experience, and the words of the survivors were brutally and uncomfortable, but there was an added edge sitting in the Young Vic. The audience. When there is a specific ‘ethnic’ play put on, that group often turns out in force, so a Caribbean play at the Tricycle usually has a big black audience, so here at the YV we had a sizable Jewish audience and African audience (the night I went anyway), I was sitting between a old African lady and a Jewish family that had lost family members in the Shoah. A simple and effective night at the theatre (bare stage, no props, unfashionably words had the most meaning), made more poignant by the cultural connections in the audience.


James Thierree, Au Reviour Parapluie, Sadler’s Wells

What a wonderful title James Thierree’s new show has, but it doesn’t work in English at all (‘I’m just off to see Goodbye Umbrella, I can’t wait’). A visual treat, with the surreal, madcap, juvenile and silly all combining to make a brilliant evening of beautiful movement, dance and hyper theatrical scenes. Charlie Chaplin (the creator’s Grandfather) would have been proud.

The Blacks, Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Genet’s anti colonialist play should make a white audience uncomfortable, and question their part in imperialism and racism, but Stratford East’s production curiously turns that on its head and makes it a black conformation of presence or strength, this is simply because the audience is almost totally black at the theatre (rather than a conscious objective of the directors I should think). So, I, as the only white person in the stalls perhaps should have felt some awkwardness at watching a murder being re-enacted by ‘the blacks’ for a condescending white audience (themselves black actors in white-face, as the playwright intended). But actually I didn’t, because the black audience (and implicitly the actors I thought), were so good as showing up white superiority as a sham and bristling at the thought of deference to Her Majesty (one of the white/black spectators), that I couldn’t possible take any talk of back savages as a real slur. Perhaps I should be mortified at this, because racism and inferences of racial superiority are not far from the surface in modern Britain, from dislike of the Eastern European immigrants to out and out violence and discrimination of black people. So I can’t say that this production actually did much to challenge these modern problems, but it was a stylish and funny production (a ‘remix’ version, with rapping the like, directed by Ultz and Excalibah, the latter who also led the all black cast), certainly a singular sensation (especially when some articulate and highly engaged young black audience members talk to Her Maj when she asks questions to the audience).

Present Laughter, National

I barely laughed in this tortuous, or should I say laboured, production. Somehow I managed to laugh with Simon Callow in the role on tour a few years back, but Alex Jennings is somehow too straight for the role of seductive actor Garry Essendine (the problem being, that I’m projecting Coward into the role). A rare miss for director Howard Davis…

Rent Remixed, Duke of Yorks

Is there any worse excrescence on the London stage at the moment that this monumentally misguided and thoroughly misdirected revival or Rent? The remix part of the title refers to the de-rock-ification of the music; it is now ear bleedingly bland pop rather than ear bleedingly indifferent soft rock. I wont name the poor director, or maybe I should, because the occasional theatregoers who save up for a night out up West are far more wretched than this celebrity choreographer turned director, as they have spent their good money and wasted their precious time.

Saying that, there were a good many ‘rent-heads’ clearly enjoying themselves at the performance I attended, so clearly someone likes this derivative mind numbing drivel, but the majority of sane people will not. The cast are nice to look at and the singing actually often decent, so I’m not blaming the unfortunate actors, they are only doing their best to earn a living. The set however is a totally vile white concoction, a poor mans Ultz design you could say. A flaccid updating of a musical that was hardly a classic in the first place (I’ll kindly call it a product of its time), this is an totally pointless production, devoid of any substantially entertainment (forget character or genuine emotion), with horrible music and some grievous directorial errors (like a screen with the names of AIDS victims scrolling across it, are only the famous dead worthwhile?). Unfortunately the production is not even of comic value as so many errant musicals are.

Swimming with Sharks, Vaudeville


Another rather pointless spectacle, thought not half as grievous as Rent. This Christian Slater vehicle, directed by Wilson Milam, is an adaptation of the film of the same name, and it really was far better off staying on celluloid alone, what is the point of these increasingly popular film to stage adaptations (despite being a rhetorical question I can give you two answers; familiarity and bankablity). The story of a ruthless Hollywood movie exec and the 'education' of his assistant is familiar stuff, and it is decently told in the slick production, but just don’t go looking for anything more then received wisdoms and glossy shallow storytelling, nothing as complex as motivations or character is explored. One for an unthinking night out, thought not altogether abysmal.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue

A brilliant and beautifully directed revival of Mamet’s modern classic, with a cast led by Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen. A snappy almost brutally brisk play about low end real estate salesmen in Chicago (who sell parcels of land in far away states, which may be worthless), they are desperate and failing men, both macho and pathetic at the same time. Some people will see the swearword filled dialogue and sharp judgements as a celebration of these men (as I hear this is the hot tickets for estate agents and sales people at the moment, seriously), but of course that is to totally misunderstand the whole piece. This is a cry of pain from men (and it is an all male cast) unsure of their worth, constantly having to prove themselves, the sales work that they do, often unsuccessfully, is brutal and sordid and certainly nothing to be proud of. The world they have been forced to inhabit, could spit them out just as easily as keep them in a job, it really speak volumes for a certain type of capitalistic endeavour. Some brilliant acting is on show, and the Director James MacDonald gives us a flawless production (credit also to the set designer Anthony Ward, and lighting by Howard Harrison). Gillen is so convincing as the go ahead salesman that I would happily have signed a contract with him then and there, and Pryce as a doomed failure is also highly convincing with his haggard everyman persona. Glengarry is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre, which also says something about our sometimes tough consumer society and what exactly we should value.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Review: War Horse

Warhorse is probably the most emotionally affecting production currently gracing the London stage, but it is neither exploitative nor melodramatic, traits which can sometimes transform ‘emotion’ into a cloying and fake sentiment when presented on the stage.

I was sceptical, as one not particularly inclined towards animals (but certainly not hateful towards them either), that this classic children’s tale about a horse enduring the hell of the World War One battlefields of France, would be able to capture my imagination, let alone cause me to shed a tear or two. But Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s exemplary production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, adapted for the stage by playwright Nick Stafford, on the large Olivier stage at the National Theatre, totally won me over, I was completely immersed in the world of Joey, a fine, hardworking horse, and his equine and human friends. Joey is brought startlingly to life by three actors cum puppeteers (superb work by Craig Leo, Tommy Luther and Toby Olie), the creature snorted, whinnied, moved and interacted as a real live creature would, it was spellbinding, I often totally forgot about the three men creating this marvellous stage magic, I was simply transfixed by these huge, noble creatures (big enough for a man to happily sit atop them).

Elliott and Morris have an admirable eye for detail, and bring a superb physical aspect to all of their production, not least in War Horse, where they beautifully integrate puppet and human performances, marshalling a large cast to great effect (most certainly this is a spectacle), and naturally incorporating shadow-puppetry and movement (almost akin to dance) into the play. The representations of flying crows, a truculent goose, children, and of course the horses, are all done with stunning puppets of varying sizes and types, created by the Handspring Puppet Company (in particular Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler). The craftsmanship of each creation is second to none, and these models would give this play a striking vibrancy even without the excellent human acting alongside the puppeteer/actors and the models. Particularly marvellous is Luke Treadaway as Albert, a Devon farm boy turned soldier who is Joey’s owner and trainer. His heartfelt tears at the end of the play (and I won’t revel to you what they are for) are infectious, and I, along with many of my fellow audience members couldn’t help but succumb to them. This young man had put so much love and hard work into looking after Joey, he was a friend and companion not just a horse, he even (though naively) entered the horrific trenches in order to seek out his beloved companion.

The adaptation and tone of the production are perfect for a show aimed at family outings (from mature children upwards), and it is truly inclusive entertainment for any age group. This is not only a visually beautiful production, but an intelligent one too. The horror of war is evoked (the shadows puppetry of early tanks at the end were very menacing), difficult familial relationships, our relationship with our environment and the creatures around us, friendship and alienation are all touched upon. Though the trenches and their dehumanising affect on men is an important part of the story, essentially the tale is told from the horses point of view, and somehow ultimately uplifting.

The plot, and its conclusion, is perhaps beyond the realms of normal coincidence, but by the end of the two and a half hours and our turbulent journey, it really doesn’t matter one bit. This is the National Theatre’s Christmas family show, but I think anyone of any age should be able to appreciate this finely crafted (from lighting through design, to the acting and direction) and well executed evening. I found War Horse a naturally flowing and consistently engaging and often delightful, one of the best nights out of the year.

Computer Death

Sadly my computer died the week before last, taking all my photographs and files with it (no, I didn’t back anything up). Well, it was created in the last century, so the machine had a relatively good innings.

Anyway, I’m stumbling along without a computer for the moment, but a ‘reconditioned’ laptop is somewhere in the postal system on its way to me (the spec is actually inferior to my nearly decade old computer, but beggars cant be choosers, and it does come with a one year warranty).

All this means that although I’m seeing my usual amount of theatre I’m not really able to write about it much, and I certainly wont have time to ‘catch up’ when I get the new (old) laptop.
In the meantime, until my normal service is resumed, I’ll try and post a couple of reviews.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Review: Shadowlands

Despite expectation of intellectual nourishment and considerable emotional power (as widely reported by the newspaper critics), Shadowlands (Whyndhams) left me rather cold.

Firstly, I’m no expert on CS Lewis, and don’t know much about his work beyond the Narnia books and his profound faith. So the story of his late romance with an American divorcee was probably less interesting to me than a more generally autobiographical piece would have been (or maybe not if the piece had been more successful in its aims). Shodowlands explores love and grief, but I thought rather unconvincingly. The first act is a very detached experience, and of course being in England in the 1950’s that might be partly the desired effect. William Nicholson’s 1989 plays is perfectly competent, there is nothing that is particularly bad, it just doesn’t seem to come together as anything substantial. This revival is directed by Michael Baker-Caven, with a utilitarian set comprising of huge bookcases (mostly representing a study most of the time) by Matthew Wright.

Charles Dance is wonderful as Lewis, very much the cold English don (though born in Belfast), who seems to fall in love despite himself, and certainly against his strong beliefs. Janie Dee as Joy Gresham, the woman Lewis eventually marries, was so good as a New York Jew (now converted to Christianity), that I actually only remembered it was her at the curtain call. Gresham comes to Cambridge to meet Lewis whom she has admired for years, and when her unseen husband leaves her she moves to England with her young son. Her friendship with Lewis eventually turns into love, and they are married. At first this is just a civil ceremony to keep her in the country, but after she is diagnosed with cancer, Lewis seems to be shocked into action and takes his chance and tentatively declares his love. A Christian marriage (Lewis was a devout member of the church, and noted theologian, but he overlooked moral objection to marrying a divorcee) follows in her hospital bed. She only lived for a few year after that, and of course the fact that they found love later in life (or Gresham provoked it, as the play infers) is nice, and the fact that she died relatively young is sad. But beyond that I didn’t really much care about any of the characters, only Lewis’s stiff brother warming to his new sister in law made me smile. The fact that Gresham collapses melodramatically at the end of act one, with no sign of illness before, also seemed indicative of the lacking drama being replaced by incident.

One for lovers of the more sedate stage I think, but also a good demonstration of acting talent.

Review: Life After Scandal

To the Hampstead Theatre and the latest verbatim play from Robin Soans, Life After Scandal. This time he’s interviews several well know (and some rather more obscure, their infamy faded with time) ‘victims’ of scandal, and gives us an insight into how this notoriety has changed their lives. And it really is a mixed bag; the Hamilton’s are probably doing much better now then they every would have done if Neil had continued to serve as a Tory MP, so they have much to thank the ‘Egyptian Grocer’ for, though they might not see it that way. The Ingram’s situation is rather more grim, it even made me feel sorry for them. If Major Charles is to be believed, they now live in penury and face petty, but still highly damaging, insults and jokes wherever they go, and of course he has lost his job to boot. In a culture of celebrity everyone knows who they are, and treats them not decently as fellow citizens (and everyone walking the streets has that right), but as a tabloid joke.

This rather gentle play is sympathetic towards its subjects (as it mostly emanates from their mouths), with only the real blackguards getting some mild stick. That is mainly Jonathan Aitken, and Soans interviewed an understandably unfriendly, though actually very reasonable, Guardian journalist, which is inter-cut with Aitken’s nearly unbelievably deluded account of his predicament. Sympathy for Aitken is just beyond me (cheating on a quiz show and bent government ministers are in different leagues), and he showed himself up as someone who almost believes his own hubris, he sanctimoniously blames the media for his lies, taking very little responsibility himself. The most deluded of the deluded is mentioned in passing, but if the play were about Lord Archer, it would surely have to be retiled ‘A Life in Scandal (it’s all bloody lies anyway)’.

The play reveals some interesting points about our media culture. Whilst the unmasking of Aitken or Hamilton as corrupt politicians is one thing, I believe the celebrity cult fostered by the tabloids, magazines and television (and to a lesser extent the broadsheets) is pernicious and damaging to our national life. Two members of the public are interviews, asked to recall the scandals of several of the characters in the play. The Hamilton’s are simply a beloved media couple from a phalanx of reality TV shows, why they are there has become beside the point. This denigration of celebrity, allied with the nonentities who are constantly promoted in the media, makes fame simply a commodity to be conjured up, and not a position to be earned (let alone the fact that the Hamilton’s sin has been forgotten rather than forgiven). Of course there has always been shallow celebrity (can it be otherwise?), but with publications from Hello to Heat dominating the newsagents and their prey the newspaper front pages, and the television schedules being littered with their ilk, it is very hard to escape ‘celebrity’.

Of course it is a two way street, the media and the celebrities work together, and our victims of scandal have certainly used it to their advantage whenever possible, and flagrantly sometimes (the Hamilton’s, Edwina Currie) in perpetuating their media profile and earnings potential. When you think about scandal, the sheer prosaic nature of some of them surprises me, when I actually think about it. Someone was having an affair, or he’s gay, do we really care, should we care? Certainly I feel that the media blows up many stories out of all proportion, and behaves in an extraordinarily hypocritical way, prurient interest on one hand and some kind of moral authority on the other. An example of overreaction and hypocrisy is the treatment of the BBC execs who have just resigned over ‘Queengate’, did they intend to lie, no, was anyone damaged by the error, not really (maybe Her Maj was not amused, who knows). Yet this cock up, and the faked competitions ‘scandal’ have created a huge amount of hand wringing in the press, sometimes bordering on the openly hostile. In an organisation of over 20 thousand, and one whose job is to make artifice seem natural, is it any surprise that a few very insignificant lies were told. It was stupid and wrong, but not aimed at cheating or swindling people out of money. This is another example of one section of the media having it all their own way, I can guarantee that if the attention and standards that are expected of the BBC were brought to bear on the print media, many people would immediately loose their jobs, including most of the editors (that is not to belittle the majority of honest and even noble journalists). The hypes up headlines, the overblown scandals, also bear little relation to the way many people live their lives today (with divorce, or openly gay, or having had affairs, all making human mistakes).

The play is an entertaining and interesting two hours, the cast of 7 are all very good in multiple roles, direction by Anthony Clark is brisk and bright. Two older ladies in the interval told me they didn’t like ‘the language’ mind, so be warned!
P.S: I saw Anne Widdecombe on a television advert last night, she is now hawking pasta as well as chasing hoodies. What does this say about modern politics, celebrity culture and advertising? Widdecombe will be standing down as am MP at the next election, but I’m sure we won’t have seen the last of her, I suspect many more adverts and reality TV appearances lie ahead.

Masque Comments

Some ramblings (or hate filled communist rant depending on your inclination towards protecting ‘the youngsters’) on the whole Masque of the Red Death debacle (see my review a few posts below).

Andrew Haydon
wrote the following, in response to things I said on a Guardian message board:

I'm deliberately not doing this on the Guardian blog thread where the same discussion has kicked off, but I'm interested by: "The whole experience feels a bit like an event for the cool kids and those ‘in the know’, the public school PR people usher important people past you in the queue at the start of the evening and people in the bar are all wannabe conceptual something or other or models. Nothing wrong with that, but the event does have a calculated air of exclusivity."Primarily I'm interested in why you think it's "calculated". Leaving aside your class-based issues (such as are more fully detailed on the Guardian thread) - issues which I find it remarkable that you foster, incidentally, Sean - I do wonder whether it was just an unfortunate series of coincidences. After all, press nights can be alienating enough for members of the press, let alone the poor sods who aren't being made much of by PR types. However, in the past I've also found the BAC quite an alienating place - less so nowadays, particularly since I now have a few friends that work there (I hope this doesn't make me part of any "in-crowd", I think we' all hate that). I wonder if its something to do with the building as much as any person's fault. Which theatres do you find less alienating? What could the BAC do to be more welcoming (short of banning visits from public school pupils, which, when put baldly, does look a little unfair)? Serious questions...

My response to this and other comments:

I regret saying anything now! I didn’t think that the production was much beyond superficialities, but enjoyable superficialities that can keep people amused for quite some time, and I am concerned that these superficialities are becoming the credo of a certain kind of theatre makers and critics (how we should hate narrative and the spoken word!), and that I don’t see much development happening (looking at the last three Puchdrunk shows I’ve seen for example, essentially not much difference). This is by no means me arguing against innovation and new ways of working in the theatre, or that theatre must be linear and narrative based, I’ve had some of my favourite theatrical experiences in such productions, but neither am I automatically going to jump for joy at the latest Punchdrunk or Kneehigh just because it is the emerging orthodoxy; I want to feel the quality as well as the width, and I wont succumb to mass hysteria or self delusion. Beyond that (on TMOTRD) I should have shut my mouth, because I was attempting to be humorous, and I was a tad over the top, but it came of genuine feelings. Then the responses from self important po-faced idiots who don’t like other people having an opinion (defending ‘youngsters’, get a life!), made me become rather self important and po faced, because they made me angry. But sadly, it will probably make me censor myself on future occasion, because I can’t be doing with bile filled message board exchanges.

For the record I have no class hatred, I am not a class war member and I do not throw bricks through rich peoples’ windows (‘some of my best friends are rich, they’re alright once you get to know them’). I do however dislike privilege, similarly I don’t like cliques, I do judge a show by the content and not the hype surrounding it, and I certainly do think that (contemporary and subsidised) theatre needs to open up to a wider audience (which includes representations of all classes, income levels and types of people in contemporary playwrighting, from Pure Gold or White Boy both at the Soho Theatre and both about inner city life, to That Face at the Royal Court about a upper class family falling apart, or indeed non metropolitan fare like Stoopud Fucken Animals at the Traverse, and stuff representing all ages, for example Burn/Chatroom at the National or Jenufa, about to hit the Arcola. Ditto for race, gender, sexuality and disability, particularly learning disability which seems to be totally ignored). I do resent upper class domination (when I come across it), and people who have a great sense of entitlement and a self congratulatory manner (who are by no means all upper class). Please don’t be all amazed and shocked that I foster such awful ideas. I suspect that if I were an upper middle class playwright it would be perfectly acceptable for me to do a bit of rich/privileged persons bashing in my daring new play (or have we totally moved on to sympathetic wealth creator as the protagonists? Has the social conscience of theatre gone out the door and been replaced by a slavish obeisance to simplistic scenarios that don’t look at the how’s and whys in our culture because we’re not really very interested anymore. Some of the ‘social realism’ plays that I have seen recently haven’t been much more than representing a story or basic moral, which of course is essentially what a play is (or can be, I don’t want to exclude those non narrative pieces), but exploration of who we are and how we got there should be a part of any intelligent play- or where we might be going too, things like The Ugly One, currently at the Royal Court). I actually think there is a problem with the uniformity (even if just in attitudes) of some of the people who run our theatres, I really don’t think they are accurately representing our society, they might give tickets to the local comp, but how are they trying to broaden not only the audience, but the people behind the desks. It seems to me that one might follow the other, and to make the case that there aren’t enough good women/ethnic minorities/working class(they do still exist, trust me)/whoever who are interested is beyond feeble, like the deluded people who still think it’s ok that our parliament isn’t even near gender equality (what, are half the women in the country defective?), and that we don’t need to address these issues.

Taking that point a little bit further, and theatres are always talking about access and new audiences etc (or sometimes seem to be). Well, if there is a genuine motivation for such things, have that represented in the plays you commission, the staff you employ and your artistic vision (which works very well for some theatres). I do believe that social change should be happening in this country, a progressive challenge to the old guard (do we want a monarch, an established church, a house of lords? What do we want from the city money people, how should big business be treated? Is consumerism and conformity the way forwards, is a Tesco in every corner a positive thing?), but I’m no revolutionary by a long stretch (I believe in the police, nice things, holidays and I don’t like terrorists, I’d even go so far as to say I’m a bit of a Gatskill-ite!). I think that many theatre people are actually instinctively conservative and have little interest in the values of openness and access that they have to give lip service to in order to get funding. I can tell you, I really have met some very reactionary and useless people who work in theatre. Are some of the bigger question being raised in the theatre, or are plays becoming too samey and safe. Yes and not would be my cop out answer, I do see an awful lot of flaccid drama across the theatre at the moment.

On our esteemed critics, whilst I don’t pillory them simply for their age, experience or gender, as some have, I do believe that the majority of them are out of touch and a little band that only really enjoy talking to themselves. We do need critics who are more representative, though experience is also important (and once doesn’t preclude the other), and we shouldn’t just chuck people out because they are older. If we go down the route that some people are suggesting, we’ll have a similar bunch of out of touch people, but who worship ‘alternative’ theatre as their religion and eschew ‘traditional’ forms. Can’t we have something in between? Do we have to have a war for the critical soul? I’d rather fight for critics becoming more like ordinary audience members, and not having so much to do with press agents and industry people. We need to change the press night system, and have several press previews, like they do in NYC. Critics can still have their programmes gratis, but no free wine or corporate glad-handing in the interval. They should sit with ordinary members of the public and not a bunch of backers and z list Celebes as they often do now (that can be the opening or gala night, after the press have been, or before if they like, and big crap shows will do so if they expect a drubbing from the critics, don’t want to spoil the gala the day after the reviews are out). Is there any wonder that there is a disconnect between critics and the public. When was the last time most critics ever spoke to a member of the public (not including their family and friends, or the 'informed' types like us)! I’ve seen them at press nights, huddling together or ignoring the world completely.

I have no problem with the BAC, I’ve enjoyed many a show there over the years. If anything I’ve found it sterile and physically uninviting (not artistically though).

Turning to audiences. I do look at audiences, I talk to strangers at the theatre (as I usually go alone) and ask them what they think (which, for a theatre person, as I cant help but think myself, as my life revolves around it, is fascinating. At Bad Girls The Musical, I talked to a couple who had paid over £60 each for their tickets through a third party agency, I was sitting on a Saturday night in the meagrely populated stalls with them having been upgraded from the balcony, as often happens. To hear about their experiences, the 60 mile round trip, the expense, the excitement, and most importantly what they thought of the show was almost as interesting as the show itself. They were very disappointed, and not happy at having spent so much money on such a poor production. For me it doesn’t matter, I wasn’t there to enjoy myself (I somehow can’t believe that I’m writing that, because I usually do get great enjoyment from the theatre, but the experience good or bad is what counts. I often enjoy bad shows too, in some perverse way), but to see what the production was like, and thereby possibly enjoy myself. I have seen every production in the West End, I can go any night I wish, there is rarely excitement for me at sitting in an Edwardian auditorium anymore, though I do love some of them. So to hear people who think of the theatre as glam and desperately wanting a great night out gives me pause for though. Crap theatre is pretty sad, as are people having a special night ruined by a single wrong decision. I wished them farewell with recommendation to go and see The Sound of Music and Cabaret, both of which I adore and, from our conversation, think they would enjoy far more than Bad Girls. It is also amazing to speak to people who have no idea about how booking and agencies work, that is why they often end up being horribly overcharged). I can’t help but having an impression of the atmosphere of the venue and production/company/institution. Who can do anything but? To not take any notice of your environment is impossible. If I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome it effects my overall experience.

Perhaps I am a very strange person, and this will sound like a terribly unfair rant to some of you (and I’m not saying this about the whole of the theatre, just about some, at the moment modest, sections). I love theatre, politics, current affairs and all kinds of other things that could be called the arts. I don’t have very much to do with the commercialism that seems to (worryingly) dominate society (I don’t own a pair of trainers for example, I have a single pair of shoes, I am what you would call unfashionable). I do think that the theatre, or at least people around certain sections of the theatre, have become a little bit too insular and trendy for its own good (and in doing so perhaps a tad glossy and soulless. I would cite TMOTRD and A Matter of Life and Death as recent examples, maybe even the Complicite at the Barbican). Sometimes it feels more like a fashion show than a theatre event, and I am deeply concerned that the artistic future of theatre culture (i.e the audience, who is clearly being drawn by the product) could possibly lie with people who are more interested in their ipod thingies and looking good than in the world around them (I’m not fingering the creators of those shows for that, but those shows have all had an air of this about them, and yes, I am looking at the audience here too), I see insularity amongst these people (and they are by no means the understandably self obsessed teenagers alone, middle aged men seem particularly partial to the theatre wanker equivalent of the Shoreditch twat). Should I just get stop worrying about it, forget it? Maybe I should but I know that a large part of the theatregoing population is alienated by the colonisation of theatre by the fashion industry, from ragged troupers to blackberry business people in shabby chic in a few generations (yes, I’m joking, I know how privileges and posh the theatre has been since the advent of TV and even film, but theatre has also been a populist entertainment for centuries too)! I care about the theatre deeply, and I don’t want a glossy profession full of visual spectacle, but that doesn’t take people on any kind of a real journey (emotional, intellectual, educational even). Theatre should be a forum to air the issues affecting society, as well as to entertain, to make people marvel, and give people some escapist fun. Remember Artaud wanted a visceral connection, not just a nice looking product. Maybe it is theatre representing the audience, the increasingly affluent middle class, but theatre should be pushing in its own direction and creating its own audience. I mentioned to one friend several months ago, one who is not a theatre person, The Masque of the Red Death, ‘oh, it’s brilliant I’ve heard’. This was because it is fashionable, hyped in advance. Not one performance had taken place when he made this comment. Similar can be said of several theatre companies (‘I love Complicite’ when the last thing she’d seen was a decade ago). This is all coming from moderately well informed middle class people and is totally invention.

Gosh, I’ve gone on for ages, and been very unstructured, so if anyone is reading this, sorry. I’ll bring it to a close soon.

What theatres do I find less alienating? It varies from show to show. The Lyric Hammersmith for Rough Crossings was perfect, a nice audience, no style police, relaxed. Sometimes I feel a little out of place amongst a totally elderly audience, but usually it is walking through the Royal Opera House where there are a great deal of very wealthy people clearly spending a vast a amount of money, that makes me feel out of place (but not really uncomfortable). Being a lone man at Dirty Dancing was also ‘fun’! Actually, it is the single person thing that is most interesting, most theatres are fine, I don’t think about it, but when I go to certain fringe things (smaller venues) and gay plays, being a lone (fat) man dressed in a suit makes me feel uncomfortable or self conscious, but more than that it clearly makes the other people feel very uncomfortable or judgmental!
What could BAC do? Well, the show is the show, it attracts the crowds it attracts, the PR has been done and the tickets booked. Maybe I’m asking for things not to be so cool, but of course this sells the tickets, creates buzz and sells more tickets (which is good for the theatre). This doesn’t necessarily lead to fulfilling work. It seems ‘conscious’ because the whole endeavour just has an air of ‘we’re so alternative and crazy’ about it, with the club nights and fancy dress, and clearly hype towards certain audiences (but actually I don’t think there is anything much radical or surprising about the show, just that it looks amazing). Shout at me if you like, but I can’t really say much more about why it’s cool, you just know it is (and they so desperately want it to be, too). I know people seem to be enjoying themselves at the show, and so many people have rolled off superlatives about the piece, but praise is easy, constructive criticism much harder. I think people are inclined to say ‘it was brilliant’, when they mean ‘I quite liked it’, especially occasional theatregoers who firmly want their moneys worth of enjoyment, or those caught up in the zeitgeist hype. But who am I to judge the quality of their experience.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Review: Rough Crossings

Rough Crossings at the Lyric Hammersmith is an ambitious and important new play, addressing the subject of slavery and the attitude of both white paternalists and the strong voices of black enfranchisement. Based on a book by Professor Simon Schama (a television historian and Columbia University academic) and adapted for the stage by Caryl Phillips, Rough Crossings tells the fascinating true life tale (a ‘fictionalised account of real events’ as the programme has it) of American owned slaves who had fought for Britain during the American War of Independence in the 1780’s. They had been promised freedom and land for their service, but once the war was lost they were sent to the inhospitable climes of Nova Scotia, where they were little better than slaves to the white landowners there anyway. Crusading English abolitionists suggest that a solution to their, and other ‘black poor’ in London’s situation, would be the establishment of a black trading colony in Africa, where the former slaves could live as free men and women and make a living (and a profit for London too). These utopian ideals soon fall away when the ingrained racial superiority feet by many of the white traders, and absolute indifference by the trading company in London, who reneged on most of their promises to the ex-slaves. Out of this story we have a powerful narrative (including dehumanising scenes of the transatlantic slave trade), and three central characters emerge. John Clarkson (Ed Hughes), the idealistic English Captain who leads them to Sierra Leone and takes charge of the colony, David George (Peter DeJersey), a preacher and enthusiast for not only the African trip, but fighting for the British as whilst a slave in America, and finally Thomas Peters (Patrick Robinson), a radical man of conviction who will not defer to British authority, especially on African soil (who was also a slave and less willing volunteer to the British Army alongside George). The god intentions of Clarkson, whose brother was the famous abolitionist Thomas, do not bring much better conditions or real freedom for the blacks; his regime is simply backing up white intransigence to their fate and the continuity of white dominance over their labour. George is a man who deeply cares about his people, but is working with the system and white rule to gain improvements. Peters is the inspiring presence onstage and in the lives of the settlers, he is a powerful, intelligent man who has a visceral feeling about the rights and wrongs of the situation. Watching him stand up for what he believes, even when it would be less dangerous and very easy for him to keep quiet, is quite moving (and Robinson gives a great performance). Peters and George are two leaders with ultimately the same ends, but different ideas, one is politic and polite, the other reckless and heartfelt. In the end the colony, which becomes the capital of Sierra Leon, ends in failure, the aims of the founders are disregarded and Peters is dead. Freetown simply becomes another part of the British Empire.
This play is important, not only because it tells us an overlooked historical story, but because it makes us think about slavery today. We are asked to examine high minded attitudes that might seem noble and good, but end up in death and disaster (think about that in a modern context). It also provokes us to see where the Great Britain we live in today came from, our previous political might and economic dominance (both of which we live with today, though diminished) all stem from the slave trade, the rulers and churchmen of the nation profited from slaves for hundreds of years. Whilst the audience sitting in Hammersmith might be of various classes and extractions, we all benefit from the slave trade and empire by living in one of the richest countries in existence when the situation of the people in Sierra Leone is still pretty dire.

Rupert Goold directs (for his Headlong Company, in a co-production with several regional theatres where the production will visit after the Hammersmith run) with his usual fluent panache and vision, he intersperses song with powerful drama. His cast of 16 are universally excellent, this being an ensemble piece (despite the prominence of the three characters I mentioned earlier). The set (Laura Hopkins) is simple yet effective, consisting of a raised rotating platform above the stage, which creates a versatile two tiered space which can represent anything from the deck of a ship to a hill or a meeting room. There is also video projection (Lorna Heavey), which blends in well with the piece (sometime video can seem a little awkward in my view).

Saying all this, Rough Crossings is not universally brilliant, in the first act it can sometimes be a little dry (during exposition mostly), and I felt that the more compelling second act ended rather abruptly. But apart from that, the style of the production and the commitment of the actors give you an interesting and worthwhile evening out.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Review: The Masque of the Red Death

I arrived at the Battersea Arts Centre with the hype surrounding punchdrunk and their co-production with the BAC, The Masque of the Red Death, in the back of my mind. Was this really going to be the hottest ticket of the year? Well maybe, but that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily like it (and indeed much of the run was sold out before the production opened).

An immersion experience, like the two pervious shows by the company that I have seen (The Firebird Ball at an old brick works, and Faust last year at a Wapping warehouse). Both those productions were great experiences. As before, you are left to wander around the large building (Battersea’s Old Town Hall has been totally transformed by a truly brilliant design team), exploring dark corridors and finding all sorts of surprises in the meticulously decorated and furnished rooms on your journey. You encounter actors from time to time (maybe a quarter of the two hours of exploring), however, often they are being followed by a great many people, which makes it difficult and rather distancing, but there are the odd personal moments, especially if you’re lucky, which I didn’t seem to be. The acting is earnest meets camp and necessarily broad, raised voices and hand wringing were something I saw quite a bit of, as well a being whispered a rather arch ‘warning’ by a seductive actress. When you have no real characterisation or ability to know that your audience is going on a narrative journey with you (or control that journey), things are vague and anarchic, and there is not much else you can do (and the mostly young company seem very good at gothic generalising). So clearly the narrative of evening (several Poe stories in this case, so even more bitty and unrelated) is certainly not the point of the evening (and you shouldn’t be worried about storylines or consistency, just see what you can), but the atmosphere and sensory experience triumph. I investigated one sumptuous and totally empty bedroom for 10 minutes before a fellow explorer entered (my cue to exit), I read letters, looked in books, opened drawers, lay on the bed even. I visited opium dens, graveyards, gained a cloak for a farthing from a lugubrious shopkeeper, and even visited the dressing rooms at the Palais Royal (where you can open a door and glimpse the back of the performers).

There is also a marvellous red silk lined theatre called the Palais Royale created in the building, here you can take off your otherwise obligatory face mask and have a drink whilst watching the jolly variety acts (or the not so jolly, the mine artist and opera singers are delightfully mournful). This is all highly entertaining (and well performed), with the acts performing for shot stints, so you’ll never get bored. You can drop in on the show several times during the evening to rest and recuperate from your trek around the building (which you should explore alone, meet friends in here).

At around 9.30pm, you are summoned to the grand finale, the dance of the title. This is spectacular, almost a modern dance piece with of sexy bodies writing about and then falling seductively dead, you can then have a few drinks or head home (there are even club nights on the weekend), and its all very chic, but far too hip for me. The whole experience feels a bit like an event for the cool kids and those ‘in the know’, the public school PR people usher important people past you in the queue at the start of the evening and people in the bar are all wannabe conceptual something or other or models. Nothing wrong with that, but the event does have a calculated air of exclusivity.
When I left the building, I’d passed an evening pleasantly, I’d even had fun, but I wasn’t moved or challenged by the piece at all. There was no substance for me to get my teeth into. Untimely I feel that The Masque of the Red Death is very much style over substance, theatre that is undemanding (except perhaps if you’re infirm or physically disabled, therefore excluded) and has a cachet amongst the right people, it conforms to the religion of non text based physically inspired theatre. Anyone from a group of hyper teenagers to jaded middle managers on a night out would happily enjoy this show; they may retain a sharp visual image of the night, but like me, not much else.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The Ring Cycle

UPDATE, 10/10/07: Wow, what a journey the Ring was! Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure (16 hours of music). When Siegfried died in Gotterdammerung last night I was nearly blown away by the music. Sir John’s Wotan was also exceptional. I do have some quibbles with Warner’s staging, particularly his rather eclectic choices of scenery (are we Victorian or 21st Century?) and dropping of themes by the final instalment, but the Ring is such an overpowering experience that the music and not the staging dominates the senses.

I’ll try and do a longer post, but I already have a play, two Tate Britain exhibitions and a couple of films that I want to write about, and that tally will be increasing daily, so perhaps not.

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To Covent Garden earlier this evening for part 1 (Das Rheingold) of Keith Warner’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I’ve seen all 4 parts of this particular cycle before, they were produced individually over the past few seasons, but seeing them together is a much more exciting prospect (I’ve seen 3 complete sets before, but only one was a true cycle, the Scottish Opera production in Edinburgh in 2003).

Taking my seat in the upper slips (I always sit in either row BB or DD, the second of two rows in either side of the upper slips. The leg room is excellent and you can stand up intermittently to relieve the pain of sitting on the un-luxurious bench and also see 99% of the deep stage) I was struck by the sense of occasion, several people in the stalls and grand tier had even worn black tie and evening dress (a rare-ish occurrence even at the grad Royal Opera House). The fact that I’ll be sitting next to the same people three more times in the coming week is also somewhat unique, and a tad perturbing seeing as the man sitting next to me is a rather noisy nose breather (whistling!), but that is only really problematic during the very quiet passages (though they are some of my favourites and the most moving, like the beginning of Rheingold or the end of Walkure).

I’ll report back on the cycle after I’ve seen it all next week, but so far so good. Despite getting Sir John Tomlinson (who is very good) and not Bryn Terfel (he pulled out several weeks ago) as Wotan (‘The Great War Father’), I was very contented on leaving the opera house into a night which was rather right for the mood of the piece. The concept and design has previously been my problem with this production (and the last ENO production too), but the modernistic lab and sleek black living room grew on me this time. A friend who saw the preview cycle (I’m attending cycle one) says that the concept worked far better this time, especially in a concentrated period. I wonder if many changes have been made, but I can’t recall anything major being much different (but then I am remembering a production of a few years ago, and I have seen rather a lot of theatre and opera since!).

Seeing a complete staging of the greatest of operas is a privilege and an event to remember for life. I’m always totally blown away by the extraordinary music, it seem eternally fresh and startling to me, plus hearing opera live is a far greater experience than on disk or on television, it is really incomparable.

The joint programme was £15, as opposed to the usual price of £6 each, so a saving of £9 over the cycle. I don’t usually buy Royal Opera House programmes, though there are beautifully produced and a great, substantial read, but for the Ring I made an exception.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Review: Parade

Can there be more exceptional musical production on the London stage at the moment, than Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry’s (book) 1998 Broadway flop Parade, seen here in an superb staging at the intimate Donmar Warehouse by choreographer turned director Rob Ashford (who actually appeared in the short lived Broadway production at the Lincoln Centre)?

Apparently the show has undergone many changes since its New York run, and this production is beautifully direct with a cast of only 15, as opposed to a cast of over double that on Broadway. Despite winning two Tony Awards, perhaps the Great White Way just wasn’t the place for such a serious minded, but never dull, musical. The show is inspired by the real life case of Leo Frank, a New York Jew convicted of the rape and murder of a 13 year old girl in the Deep South in 1913, and subsequently lynched. The story focuses on events around the murder, proceedings of the trial, and the relationship of Leo and his Southern wife Lucille, leaving some ambiguity over the guilt or innocence of Frank, but very persuasive in suggesting that Frank was the victim of a miscarriage of justice through the hysteria built up around the murder (and the personal character of Frank) by the press and political interests. The media hype around the case has many parallels with our own times, but despite revealing the false evidence and political machinations behind the trial, the show is very clever in not showing Frank to be certainly innocent (we never see the murder itself, but we also never hear a corroborated alibi from him) or particularly likeable. Frank (an excellent performance by Bertie Carvel) is a nervous ball of energy, a sober and almost prim figure, but I certainly found him slightly creepy at first too. His wife (also superb, Lara Pulver) is a determined and dignified woman, but her doubts and distress, as well as her love for her ‘decent’ husband are powerfully shown. Lucille never actually says that she thinks her husband is the murderer, but she was thinking at at least one point that he might be. Her distress at inadvertently sitting next to the mother of the murdered girl at the trial is also beautifully and subtly portrayed by Pulver, one of many nuanced and dramatically intelligent moments in the production.

Ashford’s production, his directorial debut, is fabulous (he also choreographs), and indeed meticulous. The use of dance is exceptionally strong and not overdone, he represents the obscene circus surrounding these most sad and human events with extraordinary vigour. The design by Christopher Oram is also top class, a raised porch like space with a gallery and a surprisingly large stage in front, all dark and distressed. Jason Robert Brown’s score is varied, with echoes of Negro spirituals, bluesy numbers, a soulful love duet, a powerful hymn to the Southland and even an energetic and brassy good old fashioned show tune. In conjunction with the superb acting we really couldn’t ask for more.

I had many emotions brought vividly to life in this show, at time I was electrified by events to such an extent that the hair on the back of neck really did stand on end (especially during the lynching), and the song between Mr and Mrs Frank was very moving indeed. The stage picture was so often exceptionally compelling, and the ending, with Mrs Frank in tears amidst the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (a motif of the case), with husband frozen in time in the gallery, particularly stunning.

Prejudice of many forms is discussed in this show (racial, religious, geographic), along with the elusive nature of truth (and lies) and the fallibility and weakness that can turn grown people into howling unthinking judges of their fellow men and women. Media manipulation of justice then made mobs surround a court building and eventually lynch a man, but the implications of the actions of some members of the modern media also result in unsavoury occurrences and trials by public opinion, if not death. I’m cant say that Frank wasn’t guilty, but we can call his lynching an outrageous crime and his conviction highly suspect.

I really would advise anyone who take an interest in the theatre, especially the intelligent musical, to book their tickets to Parade toot sweet.

P.S: A new London cast recording should be available in a few months time.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Hairspray Marketing

Today I’ve had a colourful card through the post from the lovely people at See Tickets advertising the forthcoming production of Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The eye catching package introduces some of the principal cast and includes a sampler CD containing 3 songs (sung by the Broadway cast). The fourth track is a chat between Mel Smith and Michael Ball (Playing Mr and Mrs Turnblad respectively), which is an almost cringe inducingly matey conversation, actually saying nearly nothing about the show itself. Still, they seem like nice chaps.

The best thing though was a very nice little voucher attached to the card allowing me to claim two glasses of complimentary champagne when I attend a performance of the show. This is shall happily do, however I’m going on my own and sitting in a £20 seat, so the retail alcohol value of this gift might rival my seat price (though the world ‘champagne’ is one of the misused in the alcoholic lexicon).

Is all this a sign that the advance booking for Hairspray is not doing all that well? I usually get this type of thing months before the show opens, Hairspray previews start in mid October (though the delay could be Royal Mail related).

On other offer related news, I’ve had a £25 offer for All About My Mother at the Old Vic. Is the Old Vic just an (almost) impossible theatre to fill for a three month run?

Review: I Love You Because (plus musical idolatry)

Despite being as familiar and formulaic as an episode of Friends or a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, I Love You Because, at the Landor Theatre (a modestly sized pub theatre, with big musical theatre aspirations), is actually rather sweet and intermittently enjoyable, though not exactly memorable. It is the archetypal 21st century Off Broadway light romantic musical (Ryan Cunningham, book and lyrics, with music by Joshua Salzman), basically a New York set tale of slightly dysfunctional (but in reality hellishly conformist) and attractive young people finding love in our ‘crazy’ modern world. Paeans to individuality, being true to oneself and the imperfect ideals of love are all held up in modest and undemanding light pop tunes for the delectation of the audience, and naturally the cast is no bigger than 6.

Daniel Boys (who failed to be chosen as Joseph on the BBC, but did a good turn as Anthony in the recent RFH Sweeny Todd concert) plays Austin, a mildly geeky, anally retentive greetings card writer, desperate to get back with his unfaithful ex girlfriend. He is a solidly handsome presence, and has a strong voice (though this is not particularly challenged by the material here), though his character is as stock as oxo. His older brother Jeff (Richard Frame), who is malapropism prone, persuades him to go to a bar where they both meet the girls of their dreams, only they don’t quite know it yet! Marcy (Jodie Jacobs) helps Austin to craft a poem for his ex, but they end up sleeping together, and Diana (Debbie Kurup) gets with Jeff but wants ‘exclusivity’, causing a bit of a headache for the fancy free bloke. Naturally, both couples realise that they are both destined to be together, despite their faults and doubts, oh, what a revelation. All the cast are good, they can act and they sure can sing.

The music is saccharine light pop, unremarkable really (once again not memorable, though this is not always an implicit negative in my view). But despite all this, the show has a lightness of touch, and the production is very well directed by Robert McWhir (who was responsible for this theatres recent, excellent Follies). So far so entertaining, but something goes wrong right at the end of the show with the title number. What might have been a zippy little show (almost charming in its formulaic predictability), becomes beyond tedious. Laden with supposedly intelligent emotion, self revelation, and banal platitudes, I suddenly realised that I was expected to take this seriously, maybe even to feel something towards the show or its characters.

The director in the programme writes:

‘this smart and sexy musical is an absolute delight….charming and catchy numbers and a fabulously funny book….every human emotion is laid bare this evening, and the proximity of the performers only enhances he detailed exposition of their characters…’

What! EVERY HUMAN EMOTION IS LAID BARE…DETAILED EXPOSITION OF THEIR CHARACTERS. What planet are you on? I think that Mr McWhir is a very good director from this and pervious experience, but he is surely caught up in hyperbole or absolutely deluded. To think that a light rom com musical can lay bare every human emotion, not just some mind you, but every, is ludicrous and beyond hype. To say that this bit of fluff offers a detailed exposition of character is grandiose in the extreme, and highly improbable even on paper.

The things is that I really love musicals; I like sad ones, serious ones, silly ones, camp ones, old ones, new ones, dancy ones even concept ones. But when such claims are made for a piece of light entertainment, I almost want to get angry. I listen to musicals recordings all the time, I attend most London productions, from big West End openings to rarities on the fringe, but I do have some concept of reality (though of course many musicals, and indeed popular entertainments, can be moving and eloquent, just nothing at all that I have ever seen in life has ever represented every human emotion!).

I do feel quite out of synch with some of the idolatry going on around some of the cult modern musicals. Ave Q has a dedicated following, sure I like they show (once in London, but first in New York), but some of the groupies I have come across are bordering on the insane. And guys, this really isn’t that rude of outrageous, it is some light fun (yes I would let a 12 year old see it! Aren’t some young people so conservative and almost puritan when it comes to ‘protecting’ the kids). Worse still is the spectacularly awful Wicked (again, first in NYC, and then when it opened in London, just so I could judge the London production specifically though). Wicked is a cynical, plastic and tuneless spectacular, it represents all that is wrong with musical theatre in my view.

At the performance of I Love You Because that I attended, I heard several young women (it was an audience of older gay men and young women, with some young gay men) talking about Wicked. They almost literally lived for it, they discussed the minutiae of a performance of stomach wrenchingly horrible song ‘popular’, they praised and disparaged cast members with vigour (or should I say, mercilessly devoured recently joined female cast members and praised cute male ones. Aren’t women delightful?). Nothing wrong with enjoying your interests, and being committed (I certainly am, or could be), but they represent a big group of young people who only like the homogenised, faintly wholesome (and ultimately even Ave Q is that) product being offered in certain quarters (I’ll be pronouncing on Rent Remixed soon…).

I find this sad, at root I think it is anesthetisation of the critical faculties. But I suppose if they enjoy themselves who am I to complain (well, a fellow ticket buyer and one who wants a slightly different breed of shows produced, so taking a leaf out of Ionesco’s book, I won’t stand silently by and let the Rhinoceroses take over). People were literally raving about I Love You Because after the show. Yes, it was quite entertaining, the cast sound nice and look pretty, but excellent or interesting it is not. It is the equivalent of a reasonable popcorn summer movie, eminently forgettable, but it got you through the afternoon. I’m hoping Parade at the Donmar tomorrow will restore my faith in the contemporary(ish) musical.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Liverpool: Centre of the Creative Universe?; Gone With the Wind

Liverpool: Centre of the Creative Universe?

Firstly let me declare that I have nothing against Liverpool, I have been there (for the theatre) several times and enjoyed myself. It is not my favourite English City (as a true born Londoner I count the capital as a nation unto itself, and above all other municipalities). If I had to list my favourites, Sheffield and Manchester would be higher than good old Liverpool, but I don’t in anyway dislike it (I say this again, as Liverpudlians are know to be, shall we say, defensive?).

Anyway, in the Sunday Time ‘Culture’ magazine today (and in other publications this weekend) the North West Tourist Board and the Liverpool European Capital of Culture 2008 people have taken out a full page advertisement extolling the virtues and attraction of the fair city during its cultural fiesta next year. All well and good, I am all for regional arts, and UK cultural life should not rest wholly in London (I am delighted at the state of regional theatre in 2007 as compared with a decade earlier, there is so much excellent work being done. I just can’t get out, and don’t have the money, to see it all, though I do try my best).
Anyway, the problem for me came when I read the following:

Liverpool [is] the Centre of the Creative Universe’

No, sorry, but Liverpool may just about be the creative centre of its region (on account of pop music, which I have very little knowledge about, but I’m told Liverpool is important somehow, apart from the obvious Beetles), though I would say for current creativity, and not past glories, Madchester is way ahead.

The second stupid quote, almost comedy gold is:

we call it liveable culture- culture that is ‘always on’.’

Liveable culture? Are you serious?! What idiotic council think tank though that one up. We speak English in this country, though you might think that bullshit is taking over as the official language.

I also have to say that the line up so far announced is not exactly setting my pulse racing. Liverpool- The Musical and some rather depressing serious music pieces, as well as a one off Macca concert (with other Liverpool greats apparently). No thanks, I’m not travelling for any of it, unlike the inaugural Manchester International Festival in July just gone. Sure the ‘serious’ music (Britten’s War Requiem and a new Tavener requiem about ‘reconcile[ing] the worlds warring religions through music and contemplation of the final journey that we all share’. I for one had no idea that the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus were at war! Sounds like a wonderful evening out. Plus the Berliner Phil and a new lyric tale for two voices by Martin Crimp based on the Pied Piper of Hamlin. My hear leaps!) will be of a great standard, and I’d probably catch some of it if it were happening in London, but I think these serious pieces are one off performances and are solemn and grave, thereby giving credibility to the whole city of culture event.

P.S: Apologies for my jokey asides, I like serious music, it’s just that a ‘serious’ (po faced) Tavener and a Crimp piece (will the Pied Piper be wearing a catheter?) are not my idea of a jolly night out.

http://liverpool08.com/


Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn

Also in today’s Culture is another notable advert. This one is for the forthcoming stage musical version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, adapted and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with music, book and lyric by Margaret Martin (who she? More later….). Opening in April 2008 at the less than lovely New London Theatre with a top price of £60 and bottom of £27.50 (plus between £1.50 and £2.50 booking fee), plus a £10 reduction during previews (thanks!).

This advert annoys me, the website is fine, basic details are given, but the booking is not open (on the web anyway, the See Tickets site draws a total blank) but is advertised as booking now (or the details of bookings are given anyway, and a booking link on the show website also draws a blank). If you’re going to do a specific ad that has booking details etc, not just a general hype generator, then you should have the booking system sorted, up and running.

As for the identity of the composer and lyricist, Margaret Martin is a doctor and author of childbirth books:

‘Author of book, music and lyrics, Gone With the Wind is Dr. Martin’s first play’

Hmmm, her first ‘play’ is being put on in the West End with top whack ticket prices, no out of town try out and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn?

Now I’m not saying that people who have not been composers all of their lives can’t write musicals, in fact I’m a great believer in people learning themselves throughout life and doing exciting things at any age (and that you can do a day job, but be a creative person too!). But I would expect a first time composer to have a slightly less grandiose introduction to the business. It has the slight whiff of a vanity project (Behind The Iron Mask anyone?), but come April I’ll be sitting in the £17.50 (plus booking fee) cheap preview seats and I’ll find out. As will we all on 23rd April 2008, when the critics will have their say. I can’t wait, I want to make my booking now…

http://www.gwtwthemusical.com/

Review: The Country Wife

After a consciously modern production of Etherege’s The Man of Mode at the National earlier this year, Jonathan Kent’s new venture at the Haymarket (the ambitious, some would say foolhardy, Theatre Royal Haymarket Company, with three shows announced over the coming year), opens with a rather muddled production of William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife. There are several problem with restoration comedies, one being that are perceived as rather pantomime like (although are in reality are quite sophisticated, but of course restoration comedy has neither the appeal, or the box office, of pantomime). Another, that they revel in world play and can seem convoluted or complex to modern audiences (therefore requiring ‘work’ for those unfamiliar with the story or language, which is true and attested too by comments I heard tonight from other audience members). This is why I can see the rationale behind a director bringing the bawdy action of these sex comedies up to date (projecting ‘sexy’, ‘modern’ etc), but if you do that you really have to be fully committed to it, otherwise you should just stick with gaudy 17th century settings. Kent has it both ways, he gives us (hideous) floral frock coats, but skinny jeans and tight shirts under them (for the young men), but breeches and stockings for others (the oldies). We get lurid sets (costume and set by Paul Brown) of bright coloured wallpaper, again with bold floral patterns, but they have a note of post modern kitsch irony, and are rather angular, they could almost come out of a trendy Hoxton restaurant. We get glossy magazines, brightly coloured writing paper and modern furniture, mixed with period pieces and candles. We even get a modern pool table and bar room set (complete with a Kronenbourg 1664 beer advert). For me, the pieces of the concept (if there is one) just don’t sit right, or very easily, together.

So, my main grumble with the production is the design, the acting is spot on (broad comedy, but not broad as the Thames) and the direction pleasingly brisk (Kent has also cut the original text wisely, though the addition of ‘wassup’ was less welcomed and as jarring as the confused set). The story is of a notorious man about town (Horner, Toby Stephens) who comes back from a sojourn in France, falsely spreading the rumour that he is now impotent via some horrible continental venereal disease, so otherwise (rightly) jealous and suspicious husbands will not consider him a threat, and he can essentially get easy access to any women he wants. It’s a funny premise, with all the sub plots, disguises and intrigues that you would expect. In fact herein lies the problem, but with the play and not the production; all this witty word play and Byzantine goings on can get a trifle tedious, especially in the first act. In the second act, with the characters and plot device established, we have more time for jokes and improbable happenings, and indeed sex. It all ends as neatly, with the sexual shenanigans sorted out, and outraged morals soothed.

Stephens is an alluring presence onstage, he is clearly sexy, and his character wily with it. I don’t generally think he is the greatest actor in the world (I have almost forgotten his Hamlet), but he fits this role well (and indeed his last role, the caddish Jerry in Pinter’s Betrayal at the Donmar). David Haig is a delight as the cuckolded Pinchwife, all nervous energy, totally fed up with life (and he treats his young bride of the title like a pet dog, and is worryingly free in brandishing his pen knife at her). The other notable cast member is Patricia Hodge, but her role as Lady Fidget is funny enough (she’s just as randy as Horner), but ultimately not a very rewarding part for such a talented actress.

Remembering that this play is a wonderful piece of social history, and restoration comedy a brilliant flowering of impious, scandalous and generally wicked writing before centuries of prudery, The Country Wife is well worth seeing (and this will be on the half price booth every night, so save money, you needn’t book in advance). But maybe I just have a restoration problem, I just didn’t laugh as much as I think I should, and that set and its awkwardness just won’t leave my mind.

P.S: There is a live rabbit, safely housed in a pink hutch, onstage. I know the rabbit is a motif in this production, but I still think the poor creature could have been left at home without any adverse effect for the play.

Review: Rhinoceros

The last time I saw Eugene Ionesco’s 1958/9 ‘absurdist’ play Rhinoceros, was in March 2005 courtesy of the Belfast based theatre company Kabosh. That was a brilliant production where the small audience huddled inside what was effectively a shed constructed inside of the Lyric’s rehearsal room. That production was taught and lean (at not much more than an hour), it didn’t have fancy sets, instead characters used models to illustrate scenes where necessary. I wrote at the time that the production was ‘a thrilling evocation of mass hysteria’.

The Royal Court’s new staging of the play, on their main proscenium arch stage, is not quite as sleek a creature and is also not particularly thrilling (though it is often very good). The play lasts a full two hours and thirty minutes (with interval), and although I was never actually bored by the play, I just knew that a reverential attitude towards the text is not always the best option (i.e. cut, cut, cut). As an aside, I’m not asking for plays to be necessarily short, I love a good three or four hours at the theatre, but only when that time is really justified. In fact I have previously object to the truncated nature of some contemporary plays, feeling that issues, characters or situations have not been fully allowed to develop, especially in order to fit a 90 minute (or less) time frame (don’t even start on Edinburgh, at least the Traverse and EIF stage full length plays). It it’s good, if it’s pertinent, we’ll watch it and maybe even enjoy it. Having said that, this concern of mine has faded in the last few months, as I’ve seen ambitious longish new plays (like Flight Path) and excellent short ones too (The Ugly One, also at the Court, and covering some of the intellectual ground of the Ionesco).

Back to Rhinoceros, the direction by Dominic Cooke is very good, and his cast first rate. The translation of the play is new, by Martin Crimp, and thankfully it is unobtrusive and natural sounding (absolutely not a given when it come to Mr Crimp). Benedict Cumberbatch (so persuasive in BBC2’s Stuart: A Life Backwards, last week) is excellent as Berenger, a lazy semi-alcoholic underachiever in a small provincial French town. Cumberbatch is a geeky, weary presence, he even looks ill at the right moments. Although he does not seem like an imposing physical presence at first sight, he does manage to impose himself on the largish stage, and his yawns are some of the most believable I’ve ever seen fabricated. Berenger’s friend, the nattily dressed Jean, is superbly portrayed by Jasper Britton. Britton always exudes intensity, and Jean is certainly that, he is almost obsessive compulsive about his appearance, but has a hint of physical menace about him too. When rhinoceroses start to rampage around the town, panic and dismay spreads, some people dismiss it as a fantasy, but as the animals become more and more prevalent, the trend can’t be ignored. Some dismiss the rhinos as harmless, but Berenger sees a more sinister and destructive side as more and more of his friends and colleagues choose to become one with them.

The play is quite clearly a parable, intended to warn of the dangers of Nazism, but most belief systems and all consuming ideologies could just as easily be substituted. In fact most basically the play is telling us to beware the heard mentality, to protect individuality (much like the admirable contemporary play currently upstairs at the Royal Court, The Ugly One, which I review in pervious posts). But Ionesco also has a message of resistance, rather than allowing people to freely choose these destructive values (and thereby possibly eventually imposing them on everyone), we should stand up to them (but how does this square with the rights of minorities to be different, is stamping out differences not just as bad as fascism anyway? I personally think not, but in the right circumstances, which is a rather woolly reply I know). In the play, Dudard, a colleague of Berenger tries to persuade him that the rhinoceroses are free agents, who should be able to do as they wish, harmless to them and other people. But amidst their passive resistance the phenomenon gowns and Dudard himself succumbs to the lure of the rhinos. I think this part of the play is important to take note of, because many plays today might bemoan social ills, intolerance or consumerism for example, very few actually advocate action (by that I mean proactively standing against something). And although Rhinoceros in by no means agit-prop, it does come from a person who witnessed the destructive forces of political extremism first hand, and it does suggest that action should be taken before things are too late. This sort of confrontational politics, or attitude, is not very fashionable today amongst the general public (despite populist causes like bashing hoddies and killing burglars, which is a slightly different thing). We like environmentalism, but not if we personally have to do anything, voting changes nothing (‘they’re all the same’); terrorism/fundamentalism/whatever is not our direct problem. And as for consumerism and the tyranny of body conformism/the beautiful people, I think most people talk rubbish about it, actually they directly lie to themselves even. Few people I have ever meet think they are in thrall to conspicuous spending, peacockery and basically showing their wealth/membership of a group/coolness. With looks it may be even worse; many women are still putting powder on their face, paint on their lips and fitting their feet into tiny shoes (almost reminiscent of Chinese foot binding in some cases) in order to leave the house. There is much that is wonderful about modern culture and our western society, and I think that Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ line rings true today, but I also feel some social isolation from many of the mainstream trends, and especially from some of the less mainstream types I see at the theatre or in the arts, a clique worthy of the worst American high school musical meanies and no mistake. This might be going rather deep into my personal neuroses for a theatre review (‘oh! the terrible isolation!’), but I really do meet so many people with the most closed of minds when it comes to other people, but think they are the most open and welcoming when it comes to art, music, travel or whatever esoteric subject you might wish to name.

But back to the overall theme: just because the big ideological battles of the 20th century are well and truly over, and our consumerist society has prevailed, doesn’t mean that there are not big issues (and possible shifts of power) to be discussed and thought about in the 21st century (although I think they might creep up on us rather more subtly than deciding whether you are red, blue, pink or green etc).

Rhinoceros is a worthwhile play, it might not be as subtle as it could be, or as taught, but the production is good (well realised, but not over the top, design by Anthony Ward), the acting likewise and there are certainly many laughs to be had. Interesting to note that the same company will be performing The Arsonists (by Max Frisch) from November, in rep with Rhinoceros (should be good, with Ramin Gray directing).

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Tunisia

I attended a marvellous and huge Iraqi-Palestinian (mixed with Tunisian traditions) wedding held in a lavish hotel located on Tunisia’s stunning Mediterranean coast a couple of weeks ago. Tunisia is an interesting nation, a small, naturally diverse and beautiful country, it enjoys social and political stability, a relatively good economy (far better than other North African nations, and I didn’t see one beggar for instance), and an increasingly profitable tourism market (see the ‘visit Tunisia’ posters plastered all over the tube at the moment). For the visitor, the excellent weather, very favourable prices, the stunning coast and the safety are all attractive (and most of the western tourists in Tunisia go on package tours, not bothering to see much of the country outside of their compound hotel and perhaps an afternoon coach trip to the market/historical site). But, as an independent traveller, and one interested in seeing in the country and not just lying in the sunshine, I was surprised at how few other visibly western people were to be seen in the capital city of Tunis, some days I didn’t spot any.

Tunisia is also one of the most liberal Islamic countries in attitudes towards women, there were many women wearing no head covering at all, and those that did normally had small brightly coloured ones coupled with jeans and tops just as you might find in London on Paris. In fact the day I came home from Tunisia, walking in my hometown of Acton (West London), I saw many women wearing flowing black robes and/or total face coverings; I saw none in Tunisia. The people also seemed nice and welcoming, I was never hassled by salesmen or ripped off in shops or restaurants (being with Arabs may help). The Arab speakers I was with were in constant conversation with the local people we meet, all interested in where they were from and to hear details of the wedding we were attending (which was a major boon to the Tunisian economy!).

On the bad side, Tunisia is a dictatorship and a police state. I knew that President Ben Ali was not exactly open to the democratic process before I arrived (it is a secular nationalist regime, and has been since the colonial power, France, vacated the scene in 1956), but I was not expecting the cult of personality and police presence that I encountered. A picture of the President in morning dress and with lots of medals and ribbons attached to his chest, is present in every shop, restaurant, museum and hotel. There are also huge posters of him throughout the city and suburbs (and I assume across the nation). The President strikes heroic poses, putting his hand on his heart (‘I’m With Ben Ali’) or waving to the little people, in the souk (market) of the medina (old city) of Tunis, there was even bunting with the picture of the president on it. All this is quite alien to me, although British culture dose have some personality cults (celebrity mags, the Daily Express etc), they are not always totally favourable, and the scale of the Tunisian operation is vast. Imagine a huge billboard of the Queen in Trafalgar Sq, then again in Leicester Sq etc, add to that a regal pic of her maj in every shop and you have the Ben Ali model. The Tunisian’s will not openly talk about politics, especially with a foreigner, but from what I have learnt about Mr President and his regime, he’s not a very nice man. On the other hand the country is supposed to be very safe for tourists (and locals…. Unless you say the wrong thing). This is because there are armed police and roadblocks everywhere, our taxi was stopped once and the driver asked for his papers. This is a regular occurrence. When visiting the spread out remains of Carthage, we accidentally strayed into the orbit of the Presidential Palace/compound, which is not a good idea. We were question by a secret service guy, backed up by a small regiment of heavily armed soldiers and police. Not a nice experience, but still a fascinating one (and of course, I can say that because I don’t have to live under that regime. Some of my Arab friends told me that they are in favour of the checkpoints etc, it makes the country safe and the economy for everyone is better for that. Would we be here if we couldn’t walk the streets safely? I counter that you have a low opinion of people if you think they need a military strong man to keep order).

Anyway, back to the better points of Tunisia. Firstly the coast really is stunning, my hotel had a private section of totally unspoiled beach (you could even take a camel ride into the desert). But my main interest was the city of Tunis and the remains of the ancient city of Carthage.

Tunis is a big city; most of the inhabitants of the Country live in or around it. The old city (the medina) is a wonderful maze of streets, unchanged for centuries, containing monuments, mosques and the wonderful souk or market. This is a proper market for the local people, and not tourists (though there are some tourist bits). The fish market was extraordinary, with a smell to remember for life (in a good way), and the clothes part also interesting (as they mostly sold tight jeans, fashionable tee shirts and branded trainers which the local young men wear). There was also some real craftsmanship on show, I was particularly impressed by the hat workshops, where the traditional felt hat of the country is made, and wood workshops where chessboards and much besides were made. There are also some traditionally dressed figures in the souk, old men wearing the red hat and constantly smoking black cigarettes, some of the cafes are very atmospheric indeed (not to mention smoke filled, like everywhere unfortunately). The Zitouna Mosque is in the middle of the souk, and buildings dating from the 8th century onwards. It is a beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of a really mad market (which makes Oxford Street look deserted, remember these are narrow alleyways). Next to the old city you have the Ville Nouvelle, or new town, started by the French in the 1880’s, when they took over rule from the Ottomans. The new town has big boulevards and grand white buildings, just like a mini Paris, and the café culture is very similar (though strops surprisingly early). Here we have a white stucco national theatre, a bizarre hotchpotch of a Cathedral (with a huge figure of Jesus and his outstretched hands above the monumental doors) and the grand French Embassy. There is also a metro line, which takes passengers on a causeway over Lake Tunis, to the suburban towns beyond (including Carthage, and almost to the place where we stayed). All I’ll say about the metro is that it was an ‘experience’, and that most of the stations didn’t have name signs. Food wise, I’d highly recommend Dar El Djed, a fabulous and luxurious restaurant in the old city (but at prices you would pay in a London Pizza Express type place). Dining in a former Ottoman mansion with a beautiful courtyard, carvings and doorways, is a real visual pleasure (never mind the food). They even splash rose water on your hands as you leave (not compulsory).

Looking for the remains of Roman Carthage (they destroyed anything before them) is not easy, and you’ll have to take cabs (which cost insignificant amounts). The remaining sites are disparate and of varying quality, but overall well worth seeing. The highlights were the Antonin Baths, a huge Roman bath complex (only the underground, but now effectively ground level, section remains, which is still very impressive), and the Carthage Museum and grounds (some remains and lots of random columns), which has a now ex-Cathedral next to it (another French import), and it is very bizarre to go into this large space and find it completely empty and devoid of all the usual religious trappings. Nearby the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said is also well worth a visit, the small (care free) streets of white houses with blue ironwork bustle with flaneurs (mostly Arab). It is an exclusive location, where many wealthy people live, and has some excellent restaurants. We dined on a terrace overlooking the sea and with the lights of the city shimmering in the distance as the sun set, it was a cosmopolitan crowd and the food was a fusion of classic French and Tunisian cooking (the food in Tunisia has many cultural influences).

Back to Tunis, but a rather anonymous suburb, and the Bardo Museum, housed in the former Ottoman rulers’ palace. The building is a treasure in its own right (though not form the outside), with courtyards, carvings, grand rooms and ceilings to amaze the eye. The museum contains a huge collection of mosaics, mostly from the Roman period, but some before and others well after. This collection is a real joy, some of the scenes are so vibrant and striking. You can see how important the sea is to Tunisia in the museum, many of the mosaics have maritime themes (Neptune is a good one), and fish (the de facto national dish) are often to be seen somewhere, even in the most unlikely settings. The museum also houses statues, sarcophaguses and other artefacts from ancient Tunisian history, and in well worth a several hour investigation. When I was there, at first it was totally empty, but then a fleet of coaches arrived, and the museum was buzzing with guided parties (many German and Italian, none British that I noticed) for about an hour, and then calm descended once again.

The wedding was an excellent party with some wonderful traditional Arab music (a large band and four different singers), and the guests of all ages very much enjoyed themselves. Another night we also went to a club in La Marsa, a very nice town outside of Tunis, which was actually a big restaurant and bar complex with a subterranean nightclub. The whole place was lovely (especially the garden with hundreds of lampshades of all hues sparkling and hanging over our heads, the perfect location to while away a few hours putting the world to rights on a beautiful evening), I had tea and cake in the restaurant at about midnight before braving the club. The DJ did his own thing, and played a very mixed bag of Arab pop tunes and some clear Tunisian favourites. I was possibly the only white person present, and the rest was made up of British/European Arabs attending the wedding and mostly locals, women and men, all having a good time. When you go to an Islamic country, drinking and dancing are not what first spring to mind, but they are most certainly present in Tunisia.

There are lots of there things to say about Tunisia and their culture, but that’ll have to wait for another day.